ONCE, WHILE I WAS sitting in a restaurant, the owner of the place came over and in the course of making conversation uttered a remark about Jews. The remark itself was not particularly offensive but what mattered is that the owner, knowing he had offended, refused to apologize. In this way was an ambiguous remark turned into an outright insult.

Something like that has happened in Washington where the mayor of us all, Marion Barry, has stepped all over his tongue in talking about the killings in Atlanta. First, he said the federal government would have moved a lot faster had the victims been white and then, when pressed, clarified his remarks by saying that had the victims been Jewish a lot more would have been done. Having thus expressed himself, he has had little more to say on the subject.

But others have. In a column in the District Weekly section of The Washington Post, an anonymous person described as one of the mayor's political opponents, characterized Barry's remarks as race baiting -- an attempt to get the black community behind him so he can win another term. Others said the remark was nothing of the sort. It was just a slip of the tongue, an insensitive remark uttered by a man who has proven time and time again that he does precious little thinking before doing an awful lot of talking.

For Barry, this must be a familiar situation. Once before, he was given the choice of either being a rogue or a fool. When it was revealed that his former wife, Mary Treadwell, had skimmed something like $600,000 from the poor of the city in the name of the poor of the city, Barry had a choice of saying he knew about it, in which case he was a rogue, or he knew nothing at all, in which case he was a fool.

Now Barry is given a choice of admitting that his remarks were insensitive or that they were uttered purposely in an attempt to pander to whatever anti-white and anti-Jewish sentiment exists in the black electorate. In one case, he comes off as clumsy and as a lazy thinker when it comes to matters of race and religion, and in the other he comes off as a historically familiar figure -- yet another demagogue trying to use Jews in an attempt to appeal to the mob.

What he really meant is anyone's guess. Barry himself has refused to amplify he remarks, except to say that he did not mean to divide the community, and he is probably a bit mystified by all the reaction to what he said. A man who was raised in the South and whose adult life has been devoted to civil rights and community activism is bound to see race as central to almost any issue in which blacks are involved. To think this way, given America's history of racism, is logical and understandable.

Similarly, it is understandable that when pressed the mayor would have reached for what to some people is the ultimate example of whites -- Jews. What he was trying to say, if I may be so bold as to interpret for him, is that Jews through their organization, their clout, their sophistication, their supposed ability to influence the media, would have everything but federal park rangers scouring Atlanta in their behalf.

Now without debating the merits of that argument, let's just say that a person could say that sort of thing and believe it without being an anti-Semite. Or it is equally possible that the person making such a remark has reached for a pejorative stereotype of Jews -- one based not on admiration, but on a feeling that there is something underhanded and clannish and ill-begotten about the alleged ability of Jews to organize in their own behalf. It's hard to tell.

What really matters now, though, is not the remark itself, but the mayor's refusal to apologize for it. He insulted some people. He may not have wanted to, he may not have intended to, but he did, and he knows it, because he has been told -- because, as recent letters to the editors testify, the controversy continues to simmer. Nevertheless, he has not apologized, refusing to say publicly that he was wrong, and in so doing he gives substance to the worst interpetations of what he said, turning hunches into facts and fears into convictions. All he has to do to clear things up is say he's sorry. In the meantime, his silence is eloquent.